Variety (Part Eight)

by Leah Nicholson



    What to Do When Stranded in Time, Volumes 17-19, are installments in a series that existed at one point—or otherwise, will come into existence at a different point—and can be purchased for around the same price as a milkshake at a 1950s style diner (the kind with checkered floors, red leather booths, and a jukebox playing in the corner) in the Midwestern United States. The series was written, is being written, and will be written throughout the years 1698, 1823, 2010, 2011, 3507, and 2091. 


    Page 16 begins as follows: “You will, at some point, be tried as a witch. Do not panic. Make eye-contact and introduce yourself with a strong handshake. Witches, generally, do not have adequate job interviewing skills. This is why theyre self-employed. 


    The series is written by a man whose brother, in the past, accidentally fell backwards through time and, as a consequence, went even further into the past. He did not handle the change of scenery particularly well, and while he was in the process of not handling it particularly well, he may have broken a handful of vitally important things in the spacetime continuum. As one does. 


    Society forgave him for three reasons: firstly, they didn’t know his name, and it’s more difficult to hate a nameless man than, say, your neighbor Bill—the one who steals other people’s grills during the summer instead of just visiting the clearance sale. Secondly, people were getting a little tired of the spacetime continuum anyway (they’d had it for quite a while at that point) and sort of just wished the universe would give them a different one. Having it damaged, in this case, was of little consequence. 


    Thirdly, and probably least importantly, it’s vaguely rumored that he fell in love. No one really cared about the specifics here, but the concept of falling in love was, is, and will always be endearing—so endearing, in fact, that the man’s following idiocy was largely ignored. 


    Except, as it happens, by his brother. 


    The forward states: “Volumes 17-19 signify the years between 1700 and 1900. This is a surprisingly popular period when it comes to inconvenient trips, accidental abandonment, less-than-accidental abandonment, and tragic romances—the kind you should have the good sense to avoid, especially if you have college degree, work a six-figure job, and have been married twice before. See Chapter 3, page 29. 


    Chapter 3, page 29 reads as follows:Revolutions are not romantic; what you’re feeling is infatuation and adrenaline. Splash yourself with cold water. It should be easy, since it’s the only kind around. 


    These documents are, technically speaking, illegal. Crescent has an affinity for things like that, and so they have plenty of them locked away in online vaults, readable with Security 3 access codes. The What to Do When Stranded in Time series is on an official list of things to be destroyed, shredded, encrypted, or turned into blackout poetry. No one’s quite gotten around to it yet. 


    Page 89 reads:You will feel out of place. This cannot be fixed, but don’t worry; you have never been ‘in place’ to begin with. It is the subject of many poems, but has, notably, not blacked out. 


    The last few pages of the document are redacted, but there’s a space in the end that is left perfectly clear. It lists the various sources, including a seamstress from the eighteenth century, Benjamin Franklin, and Benjamin Franklin’s seamstress (no relation to the previous one). On the bottom is a special thank you to the Crescent AI device VARIETY, commending her specifically for her proofreading skills. 


    When it comes to time travel, after all, there is no room for little mistakes. 


~ part eight ~ 


July 15th, 2091 – 11:56AM 


    There is an unspoken agreement that, when one suspects their employers of harboring malevolence towards their workers, the public, or other generic members of the populace, they will generally do nothing about it. 


    As much as one would like to attribute this entirely Crescent and theiradmittedlyrather extreme policies, such an understanding has been commonplace for hundreds of years. Perhaps, depending on when you’re reading this, thousands. It has happened in the Middle Ages. It will happen in the next century. Odds are, it is happening right now.  


    If there is one thing that the human populace excels at, it’s bowing their heads to focus on a task they have no passion for while ignoring the reality of the world around them. At least, that’s what Ollie thinks to himself, silently. 


    As if he’s been bit by a snake, he jerks his head up, bites the inside of his cheek, and pushes back from his desk. It’s the first sound he’s made in the last three hours, since he dropped his pen and had to roll his chair out of the way to pick it back up. It takes six seconds for his heart to stop beating in his throat. 


    He ought not be thinking at all, of course. That’s always been the first rule, hasn’t it? Don’t think. 


    But then, Ollie’s been thinking a lot about the first rule, lately. 


    He certainly has the time for it. The accounting department in Crescent is located on Floor 33, a pristine plane of white tile, subtle fluorescent lights, and rows of cubicles laid out like the spreadsheets they’re meant to analyze. The immaculate walls are lined with abstract oil paintings, an assortment of grey, white, black, red, blue, and nothing else. Here, minutes tick by like a snail rafting leisurely through a river of molasses.  


    For his own part, Ollie’s convinced that time has been intentionally slowed down, at least where he’s sitting. It’s not like it would be an impossible achievement, given their line of work. 




    Ollie blinks, glancing up from his chair. 


    James Michael Umber stands next to his desk and drops a pile of papers on it, unceremoniously. He’s been doing that ever since he was promoted to a supervisor position—something Ollie is certain neither he nor anyone else in this building knows anything about, besides the fact that it gives him higher clearance levels. Even with all his mysterious new responsibility, James still manages to make his way out of the office by noon, like clockwork, and drop extra work on Ollie’s desk. “Do you mind giving up your lunch break?” 


    Grammatically, it’s a question. Tonally, its not. “Course not,” lies Ollie, like he always does, pushing his glasses back up his nose and leaning far back in his chair. James has a habit of standing too close whenever he looks over people’s desks to determine their productivity. He’s notably short-sighted, and uncomfortably tall for the size of the cubicles. He could fix the first with glasses. Bar a shrinking machine, or cutting off his feet, Ollie supposes there isn’t much to be done about the height issue. He coughs, clearing his throat as he leans further away. “When . . . when do you need them by?” 


    “It’s on the papers,” Umber tells him, and in less than a moment he’s already half-way down the hall and to the elevator. 


    Ollie picks up one of the papers and reads the date in the upper right corner. It’s tomorrow. 


    No wonder everyone keeps missing deadlines, he thinks. Of all the things for a company specializing in time travel to struggle with, that has to be the most embarrassing. 


    But then again . . . 


    He bites his lip. “Variety?” 


    Her blue hologram form blinks into existence at the entrance to his cubicle. “Good afternoon, Crescent attendant Eleven-O-Ninety-Eight.” She smiles, her not-skin crinkling around neon blue not-eyes. “Eighty-one percent of systems are running at above average capacity. Remember to conserve energy and limit your information requests on a daily basis. 


    “Oh, okay.” He coughs. “I’ll . . . do that. 


    Since VARIETY is the core of Crescent’s computer systems, there are days when her signal isn’t as accessible as others. With over a thousand employees able to access the AI for information requests, research, maintenance, and other projects, her system tends to fluctuate, ebbing like a heartbeat throughout the building’s mainframe. He feels almost embarrassed for forgetting.  


    (Not that she can hold it against him, of course, but still. Ollie isn’t the type of person that can stomach insulting anyone.) 


    But still, eighty-one percent of systems seems . . . lower than usual. 


    “Variety.” Ollie bites his lip. “Set my requests to private, please.” 


    She tilts her head. “Attendant Eleven-O-Ninety-Eight’s information requests have been set to private. Preference settings for all employees reset at midnight, central time. 


    “I—thanks.” What am I doing? What if someone checks? What if Brown decides to look? What if I get fired? He clears his throat. “Who . . . who can check my private requests?” 


    VARIETY blinks, and Ollie notices—absurdly—that her hologram looks to be wearing mascara. “Privacy protocol may only be overturned in the event of suspicious information requests.” VARIETY’s smile drops, her program switching to neutral. “If an attendant, guest, or any Crescent associated person uses my computer to suggest harm to themselves or others, their request will be catalogued and flagged for overview by security. Upper level personnel reserve the right to overturn privacy protocol in severe scenarios. 


    Ollie arches a brow. “What constitutes as . . . severe? 


    VARIETY’s features reset, and in lieu of a response, she smiles at him and, again, tilts her head 


    He isn’t certain it has the desired effect. 


    It doesn’t matter, he tells himself. No one will care. No one will look. And even if they did, what of it? He could come up with an excuse. Couldn’t he? 


    Oliver sighs, sets the stack of documents and spreadsheets gently into his trash pile, and stands up. “Variety, what percent of personnel are on lunch break?” 


    “Thirty-seven percent of Crescent personnel are currently signed out of the system on lunch break. 


    Thirty-seven percent. Over a third of the all faculty and staff. Ollie cranes his neck to look over his cubicle. That statistic must include a large chunk of the accounting department, he figures; over half all the desks adjacent to him are empty. “Right. Thanks, Variety.” 


    The AI blinks, smiles, and disappears. 


    Ollie moves to the corner of his cubicle where the cameras can’t see him. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out James Umber’s thumbprint. Maybe it’s a good thing he never decided to get glasses. 


    He flips the key-card over, once, twice, three times. The code on the back is for upper level attendants, but it doesn’t look much different from Ollie’s own. A name in the upper right corner, the center taken up by the random mess of barcode that only a machine can make sense of, and Crescent’s logo plastered on the back. Still, he thinks it will work for what he needs to do. 


    And after all, there’s an awful lot of power in thinking.